The Reds fast-tracked Mike Leake toward free agency by having him skip the minor leagues almost entirely, and he’s now poised to be one of the youngest free-agent pitchers in recent memory.
The biggest positive for Leake heading into free agency is his age. Because the former No. 8 overall pick went straight from college ball to the Reds’ Major League rotation — with a pit stop in the Arizona Fall League along the way — he racked up six years of service time quickly. Leake doesn’t turn 28 until November, so the first year of his free-agent contract will come at a time when most comparably aged players are still two, if not three years removed from free agency. And, because he skipped the minors, his 1110 career professional innings are 170 innings fewer than the next lowest among his free-agent competitors (Marco Estrada).
For the second consecutive year, Leake posted a 3.70 ERA. That marks three straight seasons with a sub-3.75 ERA and at least 190 innings. All but two months of those three years came while pitching his home games at an extremely hitter-friendly home venue: Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park. Leake was able to thrive in large part due to his excellent control (2.3 BB/9 for his career) and his strong ground-ball rate. Leake’s 50.2 percent career mark in that regard is impressive, and it’s ticked upwards over the past two seasons, now siting closer to 53 percent.
Leake’s mix of pitches is an interesting component of his free agent stock. Detractors can point to the fact that he doesn’t throw particularly hard, but his fastball has increased in average velocity each season, per Baseball Info Solutions. He’s also less reliant on that fastball than nearly every pitcher in the game; Leake’s 44.1 percent fastball usage was the seventh-lowest among non-knuckleballers this year, and he’s thrown it at just 45 percent in his career. Leake throws five different pitches at about 10 percent each, and you won’t find another starter who does that on a year-to-year basis. Four of those five pitches rated as above-average offerings this season.
Though he has just one season of 200-plus innings, Leake has been virtually injury free throughout his career. He landed on the DL late in the 2010 season with right shoulder fatigue but avoided the DL for the next five years, until a hamstring injury sidelined him for about two weeks in August. He dealt with some forearm tightness at season’s end, but it wasn’t serious and didn’t lead to major concern.
Leake batted quite well early in his career, and while he had his worst season at the plate in 2015, he’s an overall .212/.235/.310 hitter in the Majors. That’s obviously not good, relative to the rest of the league, but it’s not bad for a pitcher. Leake has six career homers and has hit a pair of long balls in each of the past two seasons. For NL clubs with interest, that’s a nice bonus element.
Because Leake was traded from Cincinnati to San Francisco, he’s ineligible for a qualifying offer. The same cannot be said for second-tier free agents such as Jeff Samardzija, Wei-Yin Chen, Ian Kennedy and Jordan Zimmermann — all of whom will likely require interested teams to surrender a draft pick upon signing.
Leake is highly durable in the sense that he’s steered clear of the DL, but he’s not exactly a big innings eater. His career-high is 214 1/3 in 2014, but he’s never surpassed 200 otherwise. He’s young and durable, but teams will stop short of considering placing a “workhorse” label on him. Part of that is due to the fact that Leake is undersized for a pitcher. He’s listed at 5’10” and 190 pounds in the Reds’ media guide.
Perhaps more concerning for clubs is that in an age where velocity and strikeouts are being emphasized more than ever, Leake doesn’t bring either to the table. His career-best K/9 rate is 2014’s 6.9, and he averaged just 5.6 K/9 in 2015. Leake has added some life to his fastball each year, but this season’s 90.9 mph average still rated below the 91.7 mph league average for starting pitchers.
Leake has owned right-handed hitters over the past two seasons, but he’s had less success against lefties, and that’s been a trend throughout his career. He’s yielded a .274/.324/.444 batting line to lefties throughout his big league tenure. Some of that should be taken with a grain of salt, as those numbers aren’t park-adjusted, but that’s still the rough equivalent of Evan Longoria’s 2015 batting line — hardly an ideal result.
Part of the reason for those struggles against lefties is that while he throws five pitches, Leake’s changeup is decidedly below average. The same pitch values linked to above indicate that Leake’s changeup has been a positive pitch in just one season (and not by much). Perhaps it helps keep hitters off balance, but the pitch should seemingly be scratched from his arsenal. Leake’s cutter also ranks as a negative for his career, though it was a good pitch for him in 2015.
Leake’s age, clean bill of health on his right arm and lack of a qualifying offer will make him appealing to a number of clubs. The Giants are known to very much want to re-sign Leake, and the California native is open to remaining in San Francisco. However, the Giants will face competition.
The Diamondbacks have already been linked to Leake on multiple occasions, and he makes sense for any club hoping to bolster the middle of its rotation. That could include the Tigers, Orioles, Yankees, Cubs, Dodgers, Blue Jays, Marlins, Mariners, Rangers, and Twins.
Leake is a native of Fallbrook, Calif., which is about 56 miles north of San Diego, 75 miles south of Anaheim and 98 miles south of Los Angeles, so perhaps he’ll have some desire to latch on with one of the Southern California teams, if they show interest. However, Leake also played college ball at Arizona State, whose campus is all of 10 miles from Chase Field. It’s not hard to imagine him having interest in returning to the area, and the D-Backs are reportedly interested.
Four years has been the going rate for the market’s top secondary arms in recent seasons, with Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Ricky Nolasco, Ubaldo Jimenez, Brandon McCarthy and Jason Vargas all serving as examples. However, each of those pitchers was at least two full years older than Leake at the time they hit the open market. Leake’s skill set doesn’t necessarily leap off the page and lead to visions of five- and six-year contract offers, but teams will undoubtedly recognize that they’re buying far more of a pitcher’s prime than they would with virtually any other free agent arm.
As such, five years seems not only possible but likely for Leake and his representatives at the Beverly Hills Sports Council. That’s an atypical number of years for a starting pitcher based on recent markets, as Leake would become the first pitcher in three years to ink a five-year pact (Anibal Sanchez, 2012). Typically, it’s a four-year ceiling for the second-tier of arms and a minimum of six year’s for the market’s truly elite, but there’s a stacked crop of starting pitchers this offseason, and Leake isn’t your average free agent due to his age.
Rick Porcello — a similar pitcher to Leake in terms of both age and skill set — recently commanded $20MM per free agent year on an extension with the Red Sox. That huge annual value, however, came when Porcello was younger than Leake and also was somewhat of a trade-off for keeping the term of the contract to four years. That deal serves to emphasize the value that teams will place on young arms, even if they’re not traditional power pitchers that can rack up a strikeout per inning. Because he’ll command a term of at least five years on the open market, Leake won’t be able to make that trade-off for the higher annual value, but he should still do well for himself. I’m predicting a five-year, $80MM contract.